A double fracture in Wesley Britt's lower left leg has sidelined him for the season, and right guard Dennis Alexander is hobbling around with a sprained ankle. That means Alabama is down to just six athletes with any playing experience up front. If junior Danny Martz starts in Alexander's slot Saturday, then fifth-year senior Matt Lomax will be Bama's only experienced reserve.
Mathis commented, "Lomax has played center mostly this year, but he can play every single position. He's a very good player. If me or Atlas need a breather, then Lomax can do that. There are other guys that the crowd hasn't seen yet that are just as capable of getting the job done."
The plural part of "guys" is now debatable. Sophomore Mark Sanders injured his hamstring last Sunday, leaving Von Ewing as Bama's only scholarshipped lineman that hasn't yet played--not counting the three true freshman that will be held out of action regardless.
Britt's All-American shoes will be hard to fill, but fifth-year senior Atlas Herrion should do fine.
"It seems like Atlas has always been there this year," Mathis said. "He filled in for Justin Smiley when he was out. He's been listed as the backup at offensive tackle. He's always stepped in and done that job well. Now that Wes is gone, Atlas played 104 snaps (against Tennessee) and did a fine job. Before he was always our sixth man, and now that one of the top five is gone he's stepped up and played just like any of us would."
Prior to this year Danny Martz had seen virtually no game action, but he's developed into a dependable player. "Danny took advantage of the opportunity presented to him," Mathis said. "He did a great job. That's got to be our mindset from here on out. We lost our left tackle. Atlas has to step up and fill his shoes. That leaves a lot of empty spots for the other guys to fill."
At least there is one piece of good health news on the offensive line. In early-season games Mathis battled serious pain from off-season leg surgery. Very often Herrion had to spell him, giving the leg time to "calm down." But against Tennessee Mathis was on the field for every offensive snap.
"That problem is gone now," Mathis said. "My leg is probably 97 percent. It doesn't bother me any more. I'm fine."
Last off season for the second time Mathis had a titanium rod inserted in a leg to "fix" a stress fracture and allow the bone to heal. Significant pain plagued him well into this season, but the leg is essentially healed now.
"Just fighting through was what made it better," Mathis explained. "I got more and more tolerant of the pain. It finally started working with me. The rod set and the bone healed. The only time it bothers me now is when I do long runs of 100 yards or more. Other than that it's good. I'm getting my speed back, and I'm almost 100 percent."
Beyond the loss of a key athlete on the offensive line, Britt's injury was difficult for Mathis. "It was very tough to see Wes go down like that," he acknowledged. "I tried not to think about it during the game, because I knew I would have gotten emotional about it. He's been there with me for the past four years, playing together for 34 straight games. Now all of a sudden he's gone. He'll be on the sideline, but it's going to be different with him not in the huddle."
Fans don't think about it this way, but an athlete's "football life" is finite. Four years. That's it. And losing any one of those precious games is tough to take.
"What gets me emotional about that is thinking about what (the injury) means to him," Mathis related. "I know how much Alabama football means to Wesley and how much this team means to him. How much he wants to be out there for everybody else, not just himself. You don't get down thinking ‘Oh no, we lost our left tackle.' It's because I know what it means to him."
Top-tier athletes in general tend to see themselves as bulletproof. Injuries happen to someone else, not me. And that's especially true for the "Iron Men" on the offensive line.
Mathis commented, "It's a crazy situation with those injuries. We always talk about the possibility of knee injuries. We wear the protective braces, which save us sometimes. Playing all these games beside the same people you see smaller injuries here and there like Smiley's foot (earlier this season), but something major like Wes' leg is a shocker."
Mathis made a point of visiting his friend in the hospital following Britt's surgery. The various Tide parents tend to think of all the players as their own, and Evan's mother went out and bought the largest teddy bear she could find in Birmingham for the hospital visit. "She said it was the biggest stuffed animal she had ever seen for the biggest man she had ever seen," Mathis recalled of the visit. "I wrote ‘the Tide's Titanium Tackles' on his leg.
"(Because of my operations) I know how he feels some, but he's going to have to go through more than I did."
To a degree the two can compare injury notes, but Britt's double breaks are worse than either of Mathis' previous stress fractures.
"He's got a complete break, so his time off the leg is different," Mathis explained. "When I had my surgeries the weight-bearing time was ‘as tolerable.' That meant that when I woke up I could put weight on the leg right away, assuming I could stand the pain.
"With Wesley it'll be something like six weeks before he can start putting pressure on (the leg). His recovery time will be different. We've both got titanium rods. He's got one in his left leg, and I've got one in each of my legs."
With the team struggling to find a rhythm while losing tough game after tough game, Britt's injury is just one more burden for the Tide to carry. But Mathis has a message for worried fans.
"Fans have to have faith in this team and the players like we do," he said. "We have faith in Atlas to step up and play the left tackle position. Wes played five snaps (against Tennessee). Atlas played 104. And there wasn't much of a problem with the position. Once he gets comfortable, he'll only do better.
"The fans need to know that Atlas is the man for the job right now. He'll handle it just fine."